The first View-Master in the late 1930s wasn’t meant to be children’s toy. A Portland, Oregon, organ-maker and photographer named William Gruber was fascinated with a Victorian optical device known as a stereoscope, which created an illusion of 3-D using two side-by-side photographs. Gruber had the idea to mass-produce a portable stereoscope, using new Kodachrome color film, which could be held in one’s hands.

While Gruber was touring the nearby attraction Oregon Caves National Park, he met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Inc., a company that specialized in souvenir picture postcards. Graves asked Gruber why he was using two cameras strapped together, and so Gruber explained the invention he was working on. Graves said he’d love to help produce and sell this idea, but he could only offer Gruber a share of the profits.

Graves and Gruber debuted the View-Master to the public at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, where it was sold as a souvenir of the event. Afterward, they sold the devices at specialty photography and stationery stores, and the reels depicted scenes from national parks like the Grand Canyon and other gorgeous landscapes around the United States. These early reels, which came in a gold envelope, are dark blue with a gold sticker and what appears to be hand-lettering. In 1941, more than 100,000 stores offered View-Masters.

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the government commissioned millions of View-Master reels from Sawyer’s to teach servicemen how to identify airplanes and ships within shooting range. These reels tend to be tan with a blue stamp. Because paper was rationed during the war, these came in a variety of front-and-back paper combinations like tan with blue, tan with white, or marbleized.

Thanks to the publicity from the war effort, View-Master was so well known by the mid-'40s, the company didn’t have to advertise them. Before View-Master had a contract with Disney, Sawyer’s would re-create scenes from animated films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” using 3-D clay tabletop models.

Then, in 1951, Sawyer’s bought out one of View-Master’s competitors, Tru-Vue, and gained the license to all of Walt Disney’s characters. After the agreement, View-Master could use cel-style drawings from the actual films. Suddenly, the device had tremendous kid appeal, and movies and TV characters became a staple of the View-Master line. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Pinky Lee,” the original “Mouseketeers,” Roy Rogers, Flipper, and The Monkees have all been recorded on these reels.

In 1955, View-Master introduced three-reel packets, which often came with storybooks, and began phasing single reels out. That same year, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California...

During the '50s, when 3-D movies were all the rage, View-Masters would be placed in movie-theater lobbies, loaded with preview reels of upcoming features. Moviegoers would look through the viewers to get a taste of 3-D films like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price, “They Called Him Hondo,” with John Wayne, and “It Came From Outer Space.” Only 29 films were previewed this way, and so these reels are now hot items for collectors. A “House of Wax” reel recently sold for more than $300.

Sawyer’s, View-Master’s parent company, was purchased by General Aniline and Film Corporation, or G.A.F., in 1966. G.A.F. pushed through several View-Master innovations, including the “talking” View-Master and View-Master projectors. The 1969 Apollo moon landing was also depicted in a View-Master reel.

Often failed TV shows would end up as View-Master reels, and these include “The Smith Family” starring Henry Fonda, “Korg 70,000 B.C.,” "Apple’s Way,” “Julia,” and “Isis.” But the cult TV shows of the '60s like “Lost in Space, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family” are particularly popular with collectors now.

The View-Master dipped in popularity in the '70s, and around 1980, Arnold Thaler acquired the rights to View-Master, creating the View-Master International company. Later, he purchased the Ideal Toy Company and merged View-Master into that toy line. Tyco Toys purchased the company in 1989, and in 1997, Tyco was swallowed up by Mattel, which branded the View-Master under Fisher-Price. In 1999, the View-Master was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

At this point, more than 1.5 billion View-Master reels have been produced. The delightful thing about View-Master is that the size and shape of the reels have never changed, nor has the basic function of the viewer. Each paper reel has 14 slides that create seven images, so any reel in decent condition, no matter how old it is, can be viewed through any View-Master.

Reels made between 1960 and 1963 often have a “blistering” or “bubbling” effect on the paper that occurred in manufacturing. However, the real concern for collectors is if the film is damaged or missing, which can render a reel worthless.

Most View-Masters viewers are remarkably common, and so only the earliest models, like Model A and Model B, have any value on the market. The blue-and-brown Model Bs are particularly scarce. Model D is coveted because it’s the only viewer in the line with a focusing feature. The black Bakelite Model C, however, has proven indestructible, and therefore, is easy to find.

Some collectors focus exclusively on View-Master products. But they often themselves in fierce competition with character collectors who snatch up anything related to Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Batman, or so on.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

20th Century Stereo Viewers

20th Century Stereo Viewers

Remember the View-Master you had as a kid? Check out all the hundreds of cool-looking variations you never knew exi… [read review or visit site]

View-Master Resource

View-Master Resource

While many people think of View-Masters as toys, Eddie Bowers, who runs View-Master Resource, clearly considers the… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare 1867 Joseph Bates Walnut Convertible Tabletop Stereoscope / Stereo ViewerRare 1860's Alexander Becker Patent Type Tabletop Stereoscope / Stereo Viewer2008 Hallmark View-master Fisher-price Miniature Working Xmas Ornament Set NibVintage Viewmaster Reel Lot Batman Flintstones Disney Casper Peanuts HillbiliesView-master Model D-focusing Viewer: Ex Working Condition-no Medallion-rough BoxVintage Viewmaster Viewer And Reel Lot EgmVintage (sawyer's) View Master Reels, Lot Of 26 (2 Free W/ Viewer)View-master Personal Stereo *great Condition* Serial 14368Lot Of 20 Assorted View Master Reels: All With Good Photos!Viewmaster View Master 26 Reel Lot Disney Mickey Mouse Snow White Goldilocks +++Rare Realist Stereo Viewer Black Button Viewer Model 2061 Double Lens, W/ BoxDesert Trip 2016 Festival Box+bonus Lanyard: Program, 3d Viewmaster, Roll, MoreBig Vintage View-master Mixed Lot W/(9) Viewers, (75) Reels, Etc - Disney Cv4582Vintage View Master Disney Theater In The Round 10 Reel Set And 4 DisneylandViewmaster Reels : Toy Story & Lion King ( New ) 1994/1995 CollectVintage Tron View Master 3-d Viewer 3 Reels Original Box Missing Pictures Hallmark Keepsake Fisher Price View Master Ornament (the Night Before Christmas)Viewmaster View Master 2004 Case 13 Reel Lot Shrek Rudolph Toy Story Memo MickeyLot Full Of View-master Discs Reels 27 And AllView-master Model D Focusing Viewer Vintage Lot Viewmaster Reels Viewer Disney E.t. Casper Disneyland Dracula PopeyLot Of 3 Vintage View-master Viewers 1 Lighted Plus Asst'd Reels!!!Childrens Toy 1980's View-master 3d! With 70 Plus Slides Check Photos!View-master Viewers Reels Case Lot Disney Batman Sesame Street Vintage 55 ReelsLost In Space B 482 View Master Reel With Booklet Science Fiction TvRare Huge Lot 55 View-master Vintage Reels 40's 50's Sawyers View Master1946 Sawyers Alpine Wild Flowers View-master Viewmaster Stereo Book W/10 ReelsVintage, Tru-vue, Film Viewer, 6+ Old Travel Films, Wood Inlaid Box, View MasterViewmaster Library Box W/60 Plus Reels + Viewer And Old Request EnvelopesVintage View-master Red White Library Chest Storage Box & Viewer 30 ReelsMadame Tussaud's Waxworks London England View-master Packet C-282Vintage Gaf View-master +lot Of 53 Reels - Superman - Popeye - Disney...Vtg 1980's The Transformers & Motu 3-d View Master Toy & 6 Stereo Reels 3 Ea. Nr1970 B 502 Splits View Master 3 Reel Book CompleteTyco Plus View-master Reels Disney Casper Sesame Street Discovery Nip & LooseBox Lot View Master And Disc Most 1988 New On CardLot Of 18 Vintage Viewmaster Reels. View-master Viewer Model B2008 Hallmark Fisher Price Viewmaster View Master MibLot 10 Viewmaster Reels Disney Steamboat Willie Mickey Cinderella Snow White EtcLot Of 24 View-master Reels - Disney-muppets-north Pole-indiapolis SpeedwayVintage Lot Of 36 Viewmaster Reels Travel Christmas Fairy Tale Tv1966 Complete Tv Green Hornet "programmed For Death" View-master B 488 Reel Set Elvis Presley 3-d View Master With 3 Graceland Reels & Viewer - UnopenedLot Of 8 Science Themed Reels With Red Plastic Caseby View Master/science SeriesVintage 1984 View Master 3-d Trivia Quiz Board Game 100% Complete Picture Reel Fisher Price 2003 Viewmaster Projector With 18 Reels - Lion King / Incredibles /Viewmaster Medium Weight Reel Protectors (new)Viewmaster Reels - Lot Of 10 Nice Kids Reels And Good Working ViewerView Master Sawyer's Lot (18) Reels Travel Assortment (no Sleeves)Viewmaster Reels Walt Disney Pinocchio, Lady & The Tramp, Snow White B 315 MintVintage Viewmaster View Master Reels - Misc. Lot Of 23 - Dated 1947-1992Kodak Stereo Viewer IiView Master Learning Sound Projector ~ Discovery Channel ~ Projector OnlyVintage Viewmaster View Master 11 Reel Lot Dracula Frankenstein Land Of LostSailor Moon Sailormoon Stars Starlights 3d Viewer View-master Japan ToyLot Of 75 Vintage Viewmaster Reels Various Subjects, 24 Complete Sets, 2 Misc.View Master Vr Virtual Reality Viewer Discs Lot Space Destinations See DescVintage Lot Of 40+ View-master Reels Old Photographic Images CartoonsView-master Model E Viewer